Washington: The top US military officer warned that the Afghan government's credibility problems with its own people posed as serious a threat to US goals in the war-torn country as Taliban fighters.
"I consider the threat from lack of governance to be equal to the threat from the Taliban," Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"The lack of legitimacy in the government at every level" has been a key factor in the return of the Taliban after US-led forces drove them from power after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said.
Mullen also told the sharply divided US Congress that Washington and its NATO allies will likely need to send thousands more troops and trainers of Afghan security forces to defeat the resurgent Islamist militia.
"We can get there. We can accomplish the mission we've been assigned. But we will need resources matched to the strategy," he said, stressing: "A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces."
Mullen said the top US and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is likely to submit a formal request for more forces in the next few weeks but that he did not know how many.
Key US lawmakers will receive a briefing on McChrystal's strategic review on Wednesday, according to congressional sources who said the meeting would also cover efforts to craft new benchmarks to measure progress in the conflict.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that she expected those benchmarks to be finished by September 24.
Mullen told lawmakers he backed calls for increasing training of Afghan security forces, but emphasized that this would not be enough to win the conflict and that such an effort required as many as 2,000-4,000 more trainers on top of the roughly 6,000-6,500 now on the ground.
Asked how many should come from Washington's NATO allies, Mullen replied: "As many as possible."
The admiral's testimony to the panel Tuesday came after a new public opinion poll provided fresh evidence that the US public is increasingly turning away from the unpopular eight-year-old conflict.
Support for the war slipped from 42 percent in late August to 39 percent, while opposition edged upwards from 57 percent to 58 percent, according to the survey by CNN television and Opinion Research Corporation.
The survey, which had an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points, came as Obama took heavy fire from Democratic allies over his likely push for pouring additional US forces into Afghanistan's front lines and from Republicans over what they charge is the sluggish pace of new deployments.
Senator John McCain, the committee's top Republican, said he was frustrated by a White House announcement Friday that any new troop request will not come for "weeks and weeks," while military officials say the clock is ticking.
McCain also said he disagreed with calls for the panel's chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin, to accelerate the pace and scope of training of Afghan forces before sending more US troops.
Mullen said training was critical to US success but ultimately insufficient to achieving Obama's goals, announced in a strategic overhaul in March, of quashing the Taliban.
Levin, recently returned from Afghanistan, renewed his call for redoubling efforts to train, equip and deploy Afghan soldiers before any further expansion of the US troop presence, which is set to reach 68,000 by year's end.
"We need a surge in the numbers and strength of the Afghan security forces," he said. "In the meantime, we should also press our NATO allies much harder to provide more trainers."
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama could likely count on support from his Republican critics on Afghanistan if he heeds the advice of the military.
"I think it's reasonable to assume that, if the president follows the recommendations of our military leaders, he's likely to enjoy broad Republican support," McConnell told reporters.
Mullen expressed concerns that charges of vote-rigging in Afghanistan's recent presidential ballot are "not helping" bolster the Kabul government's standing with the country's population.
"We could send a million troops, and that will not restore legitimacy to their government. Would you agree with that?" asked Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
"That is a fact," said Mullen, who later warned that corruption "is every bit the threat that the Taliban is."
First Published: Wednesday, September 16, 2009, 10:48